Michelle Wie Will Rock You
Golf's 16-year-old phenom is on the verge: of womanhood, of a pro career (against the guys), and of a marketing whirlwind that will change her life. But she's got to sink those putts.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – "I will miss these days," BJ Wie says, watching his daughter Michelle play golf. It's a hot September afternoon, and he is standing at the edge of a driving range 25 miles outside Honolulu. The trade winds are blowing hard off the Pacific, whipping the leaves of the banyan trees. The golf course here, Ko Olina, is a dry, dusty spot near the center of Oahu--nothing like the lush Hawaii of postcards. The grass is brownish, and shrubby hills block views of the Pacific. For the Wie family, in many ways this is home. It is here that they practice golf--planning and preparing every putt, every chip, every drive. It is here, now, that they have come to get ready for the tournament that will soon change their lives forever.

As BJ looks on, his wife Bo sits cross-legged on the grass at Michelle's feet and tees up a ball for her. She says something quietly in Korean, their native tongue. Michelle instantly sucks in her tummy. Her body, long and curvy, coils like a letter C over the tee. A gust of wind whips her black ponytail sideways, but her gaze remains intense and focused on the ball. BJ and Bo are intense too, studying their daughter, the way her wrists cock, her elbows tuck, and her knees bow. She swings, and cracks the ball into the air. It cuts through the wind, and disappears behind a hill somewhere at the back of the range.

"It's been a really special time, this period before ..." BJ pauses, as though he's not sure how to describe what's to come next. "I know next year, it's not going to be the same."

Right now Michelle Wie is a girl on the verge. At the cusp of womanhood, she is about to become the next million-dollar baby of sports. She is about to be so rich, so famous, that a year from now the girl teeing up her ball today will no longer exist. After she turns 16 on Oct. 11, she will launch her professional career competing against other women at the Samsung World Championship in Palm Desert, Calif. Next month, at the Casio World Open in Kochi, Japan, she makes her pro debut against men. Michelle Wie is the kind of athlete who promises to transcend her sport. People who don't care about golf or even sports will know her name, in the way they know Joe Montana or Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods.

Michelle, as an amateur, has already rocked the golf world. At the age of 10, she was the youngest player ever to qualify for the Women's Amateur Public Links Championship. At 13 she won it--becoming the youngest champion in the tournament's history. Last summer she was the first female player to qualify for the Men's U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, earning a shot at competing in the Masters--where no woman has gone before. Michelle was eliminated in the quarterfinals, but for several breathtaking days of golf, she fought for a spot at Augusta.

With a drive that can blast more than 300 yards (her best yet, the Wies say, is 391), she outguns most of the women on the professional tour----and nearly half the men. Her aim isn't just to be the greatest female golfer; it's to be the greatest golfer, period. Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson--that's who she views as the competition. This is no empty boast: She played her first professional men's event at 13, at the Bay Mills Open on the Canadian tour. Since then she has played in four more men's tournaments. As a professional, she plans to play on both the PGA and LPGA tours. If she succeeds, she will make history.

Her drive to take on the boys has become the biggest story in sports. It's a cliffhanger: Will she qualify for the PGA Tour? Will she make it to Augusta? Can she win? Everywhere she plays, people want to watch. "People are intrigued by her. They want to see what she can do," says Clair Peterson, tournament director of the John Deere Classic, an event on the PGA Tour. He gave her an exemption to compete in this year's tournament in July. That created a mini-tempest among some tour members. Mark Hensby, the defending champion, said publicly she didn't deserve to be there. Yet as 10,000 fans followed her around the course, the tournament's gross climbed 40%, to $2.8 million. Its TV audience was over two million viewers, up 54% from the year before. "That's huge. That's a Tiger rating," says Kevin Landy, a TV producer for USA Network, which broadcast the event.

Simply put, Michelle sells. For this reason, major advertisers from automakers to cosmetics companies are after her. As this issue went to press the Wies were close to wrapping up a five-year deal with Nike with a base of at least $5 million plus incentives that could pay out far more, sources close to the negotiations say. A slightly smaller deal with Sony was close to completion. In her first year as a pro, with sponsorship deals and prize money combined, she could make $10 million or more, the sources say. That's huge, considering that the No. 1 female golfer, Annika Sorenstam, will make close to $8 million this year. And it's just the beginning.

To negotiate deals and manage Michelle's career the Wies have hired the William Morris Agency, the legendary Hollywood shop. "There is no shortage of offers," says David Wirtschafter, president of William Morris, which also has a few handpicked sports clients, such as Serena Williams. "If she plays on both tours, she will be viewed in the same economic light as the male players." That means a lot more money: Tiger Woods will make well over $80 million this year, ten times Sorenstam's paycheck.

To earn that kind of money, though, Michelle still has a long way to go. "We as a company would be interested in her, absolutely," says Larry Peck, marketing manager for golf at Buick, which sponsors three PGA Tour events and is paying Tiger Woods a reported $35 million to sell cars. "But she has got a lot to prove--she's got to compete and win." So far, despite many exciting close calls, Michelle has won just one tournament, the Women's Amateur in 2003. Now, as a pro, she will have to show she can fulfill the promise of her amateur career. And that will take some big adjustments.

Up to this point it has been the three Wies--Michelle, BJ, and Bo--vs. the world. As first-generation Americans who speak English as a second language, BJ (short for Byung-Wook) and Bo (short for Hyun Kyong) have guided their daughter's every move through the fierce world of high-stakes golf. They taught her to play. They attend every practice, every tournament. Until recently BJ, a professor of transportation at the University of Hawaii, has been her caddie, her manager, her press agent, her contract negotiator. Now all that's about to change. It's not just about going pro: Michelle, their only child, is almost ready to go out into the world on her own. And BJ and Bo are almost ready to let her go.

"MY HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT is ripping pictures out of Us Weekly--you know, to figure out what my style is going to be," Michelle tells me one evening after practice. "You know Kate Hudson? I love her look." We are sitting in the back seat of her parents' car, driving to her favorite sushi restaurant in Waikiki. Michelle is talking about how she and her newly hired image consultant, David Lipman, are constructing a new look to go with her new status. Lipman revamped N'Sync's Justin Timberlake from teenybopper to Hollywood hunk. He is also working with Angelina Jolie. When Michelle appeared on the David Letterman show this summer, Lipman dressed her in Dolce & Gabbana heels and a slinky Alexander McQueen top that made the TV host stammer. Over six feet tall, with creamy skin and black sloping eyes, Michelle Wie is a knockout. "She has something I've never seen before," says Lipman. "When she did Letterman, she stepped out of the car with all the paparazzi there and she walked the red carpet like Nicole Kidman. She knew which way to turn her shoulder to the cameras. She knew where to look. Nobody taught her that."

But for all her movie-star looks and It Girl vibe, Michelle is still very much a teenager. She stresses about the SATs and getting into college. (Her top choice is Stanford.) She worries about getting fat. She loves movies and shopping and gossip. Even when she talks about her career, at times she is more schoolgirl than pro golfer. "My agent says he might be able to arrange for me to meet Brad Pitt!" she tells me excitedly. At one point, as we drive through Oahu traffic, Michelle glances at an instant message from her cousin in Los Angeles. "Omigod!" she suddenly squeals. "Johnny Depp is getting his hand put, you know, in Hollywood!" She spreads out her fingers as though she were pushing them into wet concrete. Then, looking over at me, she says very seriously--like this is something I need to know: "I love Johnny Depp."

From a marketer's perspective, Michelle Wie is a dream. Not just an incredible athlete, she's also young, beautiful, and perhaps best of all, approachable. Look at the faces in the galleries that follow her around tournaments. It's not your typical golf crowd. Little girls and teenage boys are alongside middle-aged men and soccer moms. And the Wies are ready to take advantage of it. During one practice, Michelle is wearing a thick stack of bangles on her wrist. Later I ask if they get in the way of her swing. When she says no, she likes wearing them, her father, without missing a beat, tells me, "That's good. She can have a watch company sponsor her."

Perhaps no one is more aware of her selling power than Michelle herself. It's clear that her aim is not to be just a golfer with some nice endorsements. Indeed, she picked William Morris over other agencies for a simple reason: It had no other golfer. "I'm an only child, so I guess I'm used to being exclusive," she shrugs. One rival shop, IMG, has many golfers on its roster, including Woods and Sorenstam. But William Morris has deep connections in movies, TV, books, and music, and a 106-year history as a starmaker. "She is going to be bigger than sports," says Wirtschafter. "She will become a face and a figure in the world. Michael Jordan was one of those people. And if all goes well she could be some version of that."

To get there, Wirtschafter and his team at William Morris are packaging Michelle as an exclusive product. Right now the team is sifting through offers but is in no hurry to commit. CEOs of major corporations are clamoring to meet her. Sony chairman Nobuyuki Idei has played a round of golf with her. Still, not just any sponsor with a fat checkbook gets through the door. "We don't want to turn Michelle into a NASCAR racer," says Ross Berlin, whom Wirtschafter poached this summer from the PGA Tour to be Michelle's agent. The idea is to have a small number of big sponsors who elevate Michelle's status. Michelle, who speaks Japanese and Korean, is already known in Asia. Now the aim is to make her famous everywhere from Sydney to Seoul to San Diego.

She'll have fashion experts help her choose what dress to wear, what haircut to get, which lipstick to apply. She'll learn to move on television. She'll appear in magazines, everything from Sports Illustrated to Vogue. "We want to define her physical persona, both on and off the golf course," explains Lipman. Her look is still a work in progress, but Michelle already has ideas. "I'm not preppy," she insists. On the golf course, the land of striped shirts and khaki, she's aiming for a younger, edgier style. She has talked with Nike about designing her a hip mini-dress to play in. She also wants to scrap baseball hats in favor of newsboy caps--the kind J. Lo wears in her videos. During a recent meeting with a designer at Nike, she talked about turning one current fashion craze into a trend on the links: the golfing cowboy boot. "How cool is that?" she asks. Don't laugh: If Michelle Wie wears them, it could be that golfers everywhere will be dressing like ranch hands.

For sure, Michelle Wie will be a pretty package, one that any advertiser would be after. Ultimately, however, she's getting paid to play golf--and win. If five years from now she's still missing cuts and trying to earn a spot on the PGA Tour, she won't be so alluring. And while she has come close to winning other tournaments, Michelle has also been known to crumble, particularly on the putting green. This year at the Sony Open, she three-putted within eight feet of the pin for a triple bogey. At the Women's U.S. Open, she was tied for the lead but blew her last round by missing several critical putts and finished in 23rd place. "Now, she's going to make something like $10 million? For what? For winning one tournament?" asks Morgan Pressel, who placed second in the Women's Open. As Michelle turns pro, the pressure is on: Sponsors pay the really big bucks for championships, not missed putts.

"THIS IS THE BIRDIE RANGE," Bo Wie tells me on a recent afternoon, sitting on the practice green of Ko Olina. She points to the three-yard gap between where we are sitting--directly behind a hole in the middle of the green--and where Michelle is standing. "Everyone expects to make a birdie here," Bo says, explaining why she and Michelle are so focused on this particular distance. Her English is heavily accented, and she speaks as though she is self-conscious about it--slowly, softly. "If she makes the birdie putt, she keeps the momentum. It is important to keep the momentum."

This is where championships are won and lost. Golfers have an expression: Drive for show and putt for dough. In Michelle's case it couldn't be more apt. While her 300-yard drive makes her an exciting player, it's her short game that will make or break her. To learn to handle the pressures of championship play, Michelle has started seeing psychologist Jim Loehr. He has worked with other athletes, such as Nick Faldo and Jim Courier; he also helps Navy Seals, FBI agents, and FORTUNE 500 executives perform in their respective combat zones. Based in Orlando, he advises Michelle mostly by e-mail and telephone.

She takes this aspect of her training very seriously. Every week she sends him detailed messages describing her state of mind. Using this insight, he has given her this advice: Lighten up. "When she's on the golf course she should look around and think to herself, Isn't this beautiful? Aren't I lucky to be here?" explains Loehr. He says she should play less golf, advising her to take one day off a week. When she misses putts, he has instructed her to repeat this mantra to herself: "I've gotten that out of the way. Now I'm one step closer to being the best putter in the history of golf."

As Bo looks on, Michelle lines up her putt. Both mother and daughter are focusing intensely: Michelle on the ball, Bo on Michelle. Michelle takes a tiny step closer to the ball and Bo tilts her body sideways to get a better look at her stance. She says something in Korean. Michelle tucks in her elbows. Then she slowly swings, tapping the ball gently toward the hole. It reaches the cup, hovers for a moment at its lip, and then stops abruptly. "Ayyyy!" Bo says, flapping her hands like she's trying to push the ball in. Then she tosses the ball back to Michelle. Michelle will practice the same shot, again and again, all afternoon, as she does every afternoon. And Bo will sit here--she does every afternoon--until Michelle gets it right.

Bo Wie taught her family to play golf. She learned the game as a teenager in Korea. After she married BJ in 1988, she taught him. When BJ graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in transportation science, the couple moved to Honolulu, where BJ had been given his job at the University of Hawaii. In 1989, Bo gave birth to Michelle.

BJ, who is 44, and Bo, 39, are no ordinary parents. From early on they were intense about sports. When Michelle was still a toddler they exposed her to a range--soccer, softball, tennis, and, of course, golf. They eliminated the ones at which she did not excel. By the time she was 7 they had narrowed it down to tennis and golf. According to BJ and Bo, Michelle could have been a great tennis player. She hit the ball hard and had powerful ground strokes. But there was one big problem with her game: "She didn't like to run," BJ says. One day, he and his daughter had a huge fight on the court because she refused to rush the net. "After that I threw away all the tennis balls, and we concentrated on golf," he says.

From an early age Michelle could blast her drives extraordinary distances. By the time she was seven, BJ says, "she demonstrated an ability to hit ridiculously far as compared to other kids." Greg Nichols, director of golf at Ko Olina, who has known Michelle since she was 11, says, "Watching her play, it was hard to believe how much power this little girl could generate." But talent can be squandered. Tournaments are exciting; practicing for them is excruciatingly tedious. It's hitting the same shot, maybe 100 times. Not many kids are able to keep at it. BJ and Bo made it their job to keep Michelle motivated. They used to pay her 25 cents per par hole; now it's $5 per birdie. All around their house they put up posters of Tiger Woods, whose swing BJ and Bo initially taught Michelle to copy. Watching Tiger was how they began, as a family, to dream about Michelle playing the PGA Tour. One year they were watching Woods compete in the Masters, and Michelle announced that she, too, would play there when she got big. "It started like that--and we just never discouraged her," says BJ.

BJ and Bo go everywhere Michelle does. Each afternoon they pick her up after school and take her to the golf course. They are at every practice, every tournament. Even on Michelle's day off from golf, Bo goes to get facials with her. She and BJ quit playing golf themselves to concentrate on her game. "I have never seen a family so close," says Linda Johnston, a family friend from Hawaii. "It's almost like they are one person."

One night at dinner Bo tells me she plans to follow Michelle to college. "Not going to happen!" Michelle declares irritably, giving her mother a look only teenage girls can pull off, and only with their mothers. Bo smiles mysteriously but says nothing. I ask what she's thinking. "I have a plan, but I'm not going to say what it is, because I don't want Michelle to know," she says. Michelle rolls her eyes. Still, she acknowledges how critical her parents' attention has been to her game. "If my mom weren't there, I probably wouldn't practice," she concedes.

WATCHING MICHELLE WIE hit her drive is like hearing Renée Fleming hit a high C. "When she addresses the ball, the first thing you'll notice is she has a presence about her. She's like a panther: She oozes power, she oozes athleticism," says her coach, David Leadbetter, who also trains Ernie Els. "She holds the club like she's molded to it." Her swing is a distilled force. When she connects with the ball, she crushes it. Her whole body thrusts with the force of her shot.

Still, for all her power, Michelle needs more to compete with the big boys. Right now, on her drive, the carry----the amount of time her ball stays in the air--is about 260 yards, short of the good male players on the tour. To put her in contention to play and win on the PGA Tour, Leadbetter is modifying her drive. By adjusting the plane of her backswing, he hopes to increase her carry by 10% over the next three years. Already, her drive is starting to gain on those of the men. "It has that sound--that extra pop--you only hear that from the guys," says Dan Forsman, a pro golfer who competed with Michelle this summer in a pro-am event. And it is this pop, this big bang, that makes her one of the most exciting players in golf to watch.

At this summer's John Deere Classic, Michelle singlehandedly transformed the normally sleepy, low-caliber event into front-page news. "We had crowds like we've never seen before," says Clair Peterson, the tournament's director. Players complained that as an amateur she had not qualified for it. Yet as soon as she started to play any questions about her right to compete were quelled. "She was electric," recalls Kevin Landy, the event's TV producer. "Even all the guys in the [TV] truck--and they are a pretty jaded crew----every one of them was on the edge of his seat." It was incredibly exciting golf. If she won the tournament, she would automatically earn an invitation to play at the Men's British Open. If she just made the cut, she would be the first woman to do that in a PGA Tour event since Babe Zaharias did it in 1945. Sorenstam missed the cut at the PGA tour's Colonial tournament in 2003 and has not since played a men's event.

The whole golfing world, it seemed, had stopped to watch Michelle play. D.A. Weibring, a player on the seniors tour, was competing in a tournament in Michigan that week with golfing legends like Tom Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller. "Everybody in the locker room was crowded around the TV set," recalls Weibring. The old-timers watched this girl assault the gates of one of the most revered tournaments in men's golf. "No one wanted to leave the locker room. Everyone was asking, 'Can she make the cut?'" says Weibring.

By the second day of the match she was four under par. That day, all she had to do was play it safe by shooting a par round, and she'd make it to the next day of the tournament. But she didn't play it for par; she went for birdies. "It was like she wasn't playing to make the cut. She was playing to win," recalls Clair Peterson.

On the 15th hole she noticed that Mark Hensby was two strokes ahead of her. He was the one who had said she didn't deserve to be there. She decided to try to catch him. She says she had originally planned to use a five-wood on the hole. Instead, to blast closer to the green she hit her three-wood. It didn't pay off: Her drive landed in a bunker, and Michelle ended up double-bogeying the hole. By the end of the day she was one under par and had lost her shot at the British Open.

It was a reckless, even childish, way to play. But it showed this about Michelle Wie: She has the guts of a champion. Great athletes don't play it safe. They make moves the rest of us would be too nervous to attempt. "When there's trouble, she likes to hit the ball harder," affirms Leadbetter. He hopes to channel this instinct into a weapon. At the same time, he is training her to restrain her power to gain accuracy on approach shots. This paid off at the McDonald's LPGA Championship this past summer, when Michelle placed second behind Sorenstam.

"FIVE DOLLARS REALLY MOTIVATES ME, so think what all this is going to do," Michelle tells me when I ask what's going to be different about turning pro. She's grinning----referring to her parents' inducements----but not joking. Getting paid to play golf changes the stakes not just for Michelle, but for Bo and BJ as well.

BJ and Bo are determined to protect Michelle from the pitfalls of fame and fortune. They insist that Michelle will complete her education. In two years, on schedule, she will graduate from the Punahou School in Honolulu, which she's attended since sixth grade. After that she'll go to college. "It may take eight years," says BJ, "but she will graduate." To prevent her millions from corrupting her and her game, BJ is putting everything she earns into a trust that she can't touch until she's 18. The money will be invested conservatively, and neither he nor Bo will have access to it. BJ has tried hard to protect Michelle from the dark side of fame, instructing her not to read articles critical of her. He has also tried to control the press as best he can, carefully choosing how to present Michelle's image to the public. Recently Vogue magazine requested an interview with Michelle. BJ deferred it, waiting for the time he feels splashy photos in Vogue would be right for his daughter.

Still, as Michelle goes out into the world, it will become harder and harder for BJ and Bo to protect her. The rich and famous are targets--and Michelle will be no different. Every tournament she plays will be scrutinized and critiqued. This summer a British newspaper cast Michelle as a sulky diva because she split with the caddie she was using at the Women's British Open. She was also publicly criticized for competing in this year's McDonald's LPGA Championship. The tournament changed its rules to allow Michelle, as an amateur, to play--mainly to jack up excitement for the event. "This is the kind of tournament you should earn your way into," Cristie Kerr, winner of six LPGA Tour titles, told Sports Illustrated. "If we have to resort to this sort of thing for publicity, maybe we should look at other ways." Golfing champ Nancy Lopez added, "She should have played more amateur golf against her peers and gotten used to winning." Michelle ended up placing second.

Asked how she feels about being criticized publicly, Michelle says "It's kind of fun playing when people are against you." But she concedes that it irritates her when other people try to tell her how to play her game. "It bothers me when they act like they know me," she says.

ONE AFTERNOON on the range, the three Wies are huddled together, staring at the screen of a laptop computer. They are watching a video, shot a few minutes earlier, of Michelle hitting her drive. Michelle sits cross-legged on the grass while BJ stands to her right to block out the sun, and Bo looks over her shoulder. They say nothing. They are trying to detect whether Michelle has been able to make a small but critical adjustment to her swing. Hunched around this miniature version of Michelle, they are like a cocoon. For years now, they've been nourishing and protecting this swing. Now it's almost ready to go out into the world.

On the screen in slow motion, the tiny Michelle arches her club back and then lowers it to the ball. Michelle rewinds the video, and plays it back again, this time frame by frame. She, BJ, and Bo watch as her miniaturized arms move second by second toward the ball. It's almost suspenseful: Has she made the adjustment?

Suddenly Michelle snaps the computer shut. Bo and BJ gather up her clubs and put them in the back of their golf cart. Their faces are unreadable. Then Michelle says simply, "I did it." She walks over to her parents, who are waiting in the cart. Then the three of them head for the 1st tee.

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